After 3 days cycling in the heart of the Pyrnees in mid May we are certain of two things: 1) We have unfinished business here 2) This is a gem that needs to be shared
WHY DID WE GO?
We like to see ourselves as France's number one fans (it's got the BEST roads, the BEST scenery and the BEST food). This September we will be cycling from St Malo to Nice in 10 days with a group of friends. That's how much we love France and that's why we decided to get our little legs over to the Pyrénées - arguably the hardest mountain range in France.
We'd been recommended to go to Velo Le Closier by friends from Dynamic Rides - who knew Reg and Sue (the owners) before they moved out to France and had ridden with Reg for years. It was time for us to see what all the fuss was about.
We had a standard journey with RyanAir (you know how it is - the fanfare if they actually land at the destination on time etc.) Flying Stansted - Toulouse was alright. I mean Stansted airport always seems to be heaving but hey, we chose it for cheap flights so can't complain. Toulouse on the other hand is pretty plush as airports go.
At Toulouse airport, within an hour we were through controls, baggage picked up and had our car hire sorted (£60 for 4 days). We tapped 'La-Barthe-de-Neste' in the Sat Nav and off we went. Easy!
En route to Velo Le Closier (which is less than an hour and a half away), we jumped off the motorway to a small town as we were on the prowl for lunch. As usual when we go to France, we followed our greedy noses and headed straight for a workman's lunch. Of course as cyclists you'll understand the need to carb up right? If you've never done the 'formule' menu (aka menu du jour) before and you like food, you need to do it! It'll knock you back 12 euros or so but in return you are rewarded with a 3 course meal, a carafe of wine and a coffee as thick as treacle. No choosing what you want, no fussing, no picking - you just get what you're given and that's that! Amazing.
Once the shakes had worn off from our lunchtime espresso (which was strong enough to wake the dead), we began to go through the dangerous route of; 'Shall we just have a chill today and leave the hills til tomorrow?' Merely the thought of the effort of making adjustments on the bikes, finding and downloading a route on to the Garmin etc etc seemed exhausting in contrast with having some beers in the sun! That was the early start speaking.
However... on arrival we were welcomed by Reg and Sue with a good old cuppa and home-baked cake. We had an explore of the impressive B&B including a look around the garden which is full of fruit trees and has a quaint courtyard.
Suddenly rejuvenated by our surroundings, when Reg asked us if we wanted to ride, there was no question in our minds - we most definitely did! The beers could wait. Everything was gold in the afternoon sun, the air was warm and the view from our window (above) was irresistible - No true cyclist could have said no to that!
After getting set up on bikes we rented from Velo le Closier - a well maintained Cervelo and Scott Solace Ultegra spec, Reg gave us a guided 35 mile tour around the beautiful rolling route of the Baronnie region, including a necessary pit stop to refuel at a quaint little cafe. Despite being a 'flat ride' there were still a few tasty climbs including Rue d'en Haut a cheeky 1.5 miler at 5%. It was a joy to be able to take in the scenery without a second thought on which turn we needed to take and Reg made sure that he spared our legs of any big climbs so that we could meet the Cols head on the next day!
CYCLING THE COLS
They say a picture speaks a thousand words but even with a picture AND a thousand words I don't think I could do this bit justice. Cycling the Pyrenees is inspiring, it's elating and it makes your heart sing.We started our ride after a delicious breakfast (in case you're wondering, we fuelled up like pros with: pastries, Sue-made-jam, granola, locally made yoghurts, fruit and coffee) and sluggishly got on our bikes (unlike pros because they don't gorge themselves quite as much!!!).
The first turn out of the village, La-Barthe-de-Neste soon got us in the zone as we descended in to this magical valley with the roaring river on our left (which is a proper Salmon river and makes you immediately feel like you're on some film set in Canada or the Highlands). The intimidating mountains were looming but the energy from the water was contagious and enthused us to defeat and conquer!
We knew exactly where we were going because Reg had given us routes to download on the Garmins and today's ride was a vehicle supported ride. I have never felt so close to being a pro on a bike. We rode our bikes - I'd like to say Froomey style - whilst Reg was there taking photos of us along the route checking we had enough water, carrying our extra layers in the boot and giving us inside knowledge of the profile of the next stint of the ride. It's ridiculous how great that felt.
We were unsure as to whether we would do a vehicle supported ride but with limited holidays and a short amount of time on this particular trip, we were keen to maximise every second of our time away. No stress, no worry, just ride knowing that all your gear is right behind you.
Reg had originally planned a 70 mile route to Lac de Cap de Long - promising that the climb is his favourite and one not to be missed. A quick google backed up his claim - it looked absolutely incredible - yep let's do that! It was only agreeing that we realised that the day meant 9,500 feet of climbing and Lac de Cap de Long was 8.5miles at 8.5% and that was after a 6.5mile 3% 'warm up'! Hmmmm - anyway we were here for a challenge! Consequently it was with very mixed emotions that we discovered that the main climb from Fabian was closed due to snowfall ....shucks!!
Straight away Reg had a back up plan for us - onward we go to Piau Engaly instead, the biggest local ski resort. Despite being a couple of miles shorter and 1,000 feet less climbing it was still a good challenge with an average gradient of 7%. You could tell it was still early in the ride as Dan decided to give it a bit of welly and set off at quite a pace. The views as we got higher just kept getting better and better with the 14 switchbacks providing loads of opportunities to admire the scenery if you were able to look up from your stem! Once at the top we were surrounded by snow and very grateful for our extra layers and our full finger gloves which swiftly appeared from the car boot by Reg.
Riding back was all downhill which would have been amazing but there was quite a strong headwind and you know it's a strong headwind when you're pedalling hard to go downhill! Of course I offered to lead Dan out - went to the front for about 20 seconds and then realised how strong the wind was so soon slipped back in behind him who powered the 20 miles home.
We stopped off for lunch in a town called St Lary Soulan where we had the most delicious local ham and cheese on stone baked baguette in a charming cafe. No desserts for us though - there were cakes waiting for us back at base that Sue had been baking for us that afternoon (including Dan's favourite - Lemon Drizzle) which weren't going to eat themselves...
So we learnt a very important lesson on Sunday about about the art of cycling in the Pyrénées - You need to pace yourself !!
For anyone who has ridden with Dan before, you'll know that he's like a terrier in the way he attacks the hills in the Midlands. This isn't such a successful approach when you've got 12km climb at 7% - fine for 1 day but it has a big impact on day 2+!
Today's ride was the infamous Col D'Aspin - 7.2miles at 5%. We'd spent a while on the Saturday night drooling over all the routes that we could do as our Grand Finale ride. There are SO many iconic climbs that you can do from Reg and Sue's and then there are the locally known climbs that are apparently more beautiful than many of the famous ones. It was a tough choice which needed much thought over some beers on Saturday evening. In the end we felt we couldn't not do the Col D'Aspin and it was a most excellent decision! Chapeau to us!
After riding 9 miles from our base we turned onto our main climb but were shocked at how steep it felt and, after climbing for 2 miles at a very challenging 11% the road turned into a gravel track - "surely this can't be the most ridden climb in the Tour de France!" Sure enough we realised we'd downloaded the wrong route so headed back down to locate the real col a few miles down the road. Gutted!
I have to say I've not ridden a lot of big col's before but Col D'Aspin was probably my favourite ever climb - it's breathtakingly beautiful and the landscape is so varied that you really do lose yourself in it. By the time we got to the top the clouds were rolling in creating a dramatic panoramic that just stuns you in to a sense of awe. I loved it.
Dan however wasn't in a great place. As eluded to earlier - pacing yourself on these climbs is key and killing yourself on one hill might work if you're not riding the next day but if you're out in the Pyrénées it's all about taking it steady. After yesterdays attack and our little detour climb en route to the Col (!!) he was ascending at a much slower rate than he would do normally and there was plenty of grimacing on the steeper sections whereas I'd been a lot steadier on the climbs so felt alright (cue smug look). Anyway he made it up, even if he did have to stop to "take photo's" a few times. It's fair to say the Strava leader boards were not disturbed by either of our efforts!
FOOD AT VELO-LE-CLOSIER
Know that feeling when you get home from hammering hills? You feel like a hero but one that will very soon go in to the dark depths of hanger... Not here! Have I mentioned that Sue provides home baked post ride cakes? There is nothing quite as satisfying as coming home to a pot of tea and cake. I felt like a school kid again, wondering what snacks would be waiting for me at home!
Likewise with dinner. For a short weekend, we knew we couldn't go self-catered as we usually do. We didn't want to be wasting precious cycling time with shopping, cooking or even finding places to eat out.
It was purely, simply perfect to be able to get back, relax and then enjoy a sit down, three course dinner with Reg, Sue and any other guests staying at Velo Le Closier.
We had the pleasure of dining with the Cycling Weekly crew: Ollie Bridgewood (now at GCN), Andrew Daley and Daniel Gould. They were working on a YouTube video of one of the Tour De France stages as well as two young French designers from Paris. An eclectic group with a passion for cycling makes for a late night! It's always fascinating meeting new people and great to share good cycling stories or destinations - the inevitable discussions about Sky / Wiggo / Froome came up and a decent of wine (provided free with dinner!!!) was consumed . Reg and Sue did a fantastic job making us feel at home and creating a family style atmosphere and the table went very quiet when Sue brought out her home made desserts including home made ice cream!
OVERVIEW OF THE PYRÉNÉES
It was our first time riding in the Pyrénées and we were blown away. The place is simply gorgeous. In all honesty we took it pretty steady and barely scratched the surface - 148miles / 11,000ft across the 3 days is what a TdF rider will do in a normal day - but we're not TdF riders and are there for the experience of being there as much as the riding itself. There are so many good climbs around the area, with many of them unknown because they're too small to be used by the Tour. But col bagging is not all the area has to offer - there is a real variety of rides available and they all have spectacular scenery.
We loved it.
In addition Sue and Reg have got a fantastic thing here with Velo le Closier. They're like the Carlsberg of a cycling holiday. 'If Carlsberg did cycling holidays...' (although fortunately they dont keep Carlsberg - Leffe & 1664 if you're interested with an honesty box!) They work so hard to make every guests stay ace and its no surprise they have such a high review score on Tripadvisor. The place would make a fantastic base for an organised trip for a group or club (it sleeps 14) - Dan and I were discussing when we would be back in 2019 - anyone interested??
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Coz & Dan